Street Harassment Pt. 2: Physical (Now With More Violation!)

21Jan10

When I began writing my last post, I had intended for it to include both verbal and physical street harassment.  I soon realized that, partially due to my verbose nature, and partially due to the subject matter, putting the two subjects together was not a viable option.  So today I bring you the second side of street harassment: the physical.  Physical street harassment includes (but is not limited to) the popular casual “accidental” brush of body parts, groping, and frotteurism.

I wasn’t surprised that the responses to verbal street harassment are pretty lackluster.  However, I was expecting a bit more outrage on behalf of women when it comes to the physical side of street harassment.  I was wrong, of course.  The tendency to blame women for harassment and tell them they must be imagining things is incredibly common.

Before I address some of the ways in which women are blamed for being assaulted, let me get one thing straight: We can tell the difference between an accidental brush and one that has been done on purpose. I’ve experienced both, and, while some of the ones I assumed were accidental may have been the product of an extremely skilled groper, the ones I thought were on purpose, were on purpose.  I’m not being overly jumpy or emotional.  I can tell, because most gropers are pretty fucking obvious about it.

Now that we have that out of the way…

I would first like to address the idea that women are overreacting, and most of the cases of groping are accidental.  Included in this category is the sub-accusation — women are not disparaged for groping when they brush by men in public places.

This article got a good deal of comments along the lines of the above argument.  The article goes over the different levels of street assault, from accidental brushes (which they describe as the “insignificant touch”) to the extremes (“The man on the crowded Metro who grinds his pelvis into your back every time the train bumps, whose erection is in full view when you escape to an open seat two stops later”).  It doesn’t say (or even imply) that every man who brushes past a woman is copping a feel.  It doesn’t say to file sexual harassment charges against people who bump into you.  And it also includes women in the examples of gropers (“The woman who thinks she can grab a man’s ass and grind herself into his groin on a public sidewalk in order to convince him to sleep with her, because he’s a man and she’s a woman).  So, when people, after reading an article like that (which does not, in fact, accuse all men of assaulting women, just states that it does happen and is incredibly common in D.C.), automatically jump in to say that women are overreacting for taking issue with being groped in public, that it’s all in their heads, there is obviously a problem.

One of the main ways that people (male and female) encourage sexual assault is by telling the victims that they are being silly, overreacting, and don’t know groping (or other forms of harassment) when they see (or feel) it.  This is a favored tactic of abusers — a woman who has been taught not to trust her own judgement is far more likely to submit to abuse.

Other comments told women to yell at their attackers, take self-defense courses, carry around weapons, turn violent on the men who assault them.  These people stated that it was the responsibility of women to stop assault — if they did not fight back, they deserved to be assaulted.

I’ve spoken before about how wrong this mode of thinking is.  Victim-blaming is incredibly convenient, both for attackers and bystanders.  It takes all the responsibility out of the hands of the people whose actions are wrong, and also conveniently prevents anyone else from having to worry about finding a solution…except, of course, the victims, who build their lives around attempting to avoid assault.  It works out quite well, of course, because if someone is attacked (which it is guaranteed that some women will be), they must have done something wrong.  They wore clothing that was too revealing, they didn’t fight back vehemently enough, they had a few too many drinks when they went out with their friends, they thought they had the right to go out of the house at night.

Do you wonder why women don’t know how to react in situations like these?  You tell them they deserve to be victimized if they do not react violently, but punish them if they do.  It isn’t quite as simple as, “This guy is touching me inappropriately, I should do or say something so he doesn’t do it again.”  In the (thankfully not as severe as some that others endure) instances where I have experienced physical street harassment, I froze up.  Especially when I was younger (this shit started at a pretty young age for me, both on the street and with members of my father’s church), I was so shocked (and scared, especially in my younger years) that I just shut down.  It is difficult, and fucking terrifying, to speak up.  If we do break out of the shock in time to take action, it still isn’t a simple choice.  We don’t know if we’ll make these men turn violent.  We don’t know if we’ll turn the bystanders against us (though it’s quite likely that we will).  If we react, we are doing something that we have been trained not to do (lash out publicly and vehemently), and we have no idea what the outcome will be.

From one article in The Sexist’s series addressing public sexual assault:

So: picture, if you will, Sady, a burly man-friend, and a not-at-all-burly lady friend walking up the stairs of the subway. The lady friend occupying the stair level in front of me, the gentleman and I behind. Lo and behold, I see before me a hand! And the hand is most definitely reaching out to grab – and subsequently grabbing – my friend’s ass. I freeze. The lady freezes. The dude who is with us keeps on a-walkin’ like it’s no big thing, but, whatever. After about 2 seconds, I grab the butt-fondling dude’s arm and shove him into the side of the stairs and yell at him, because, WHAT THE FUCK. But for a second there, nobody was prepared to deal with what was happening. And as soon as I took action, the first thing that came to my mind was, “Am I going to get in trouble for this?” Honestly, I think people are worried about getting in TROUBLE if they respond. I think that is part of the deal.

That uncertainty, that “am I going to get in trouble?” reaction, is a big part of why so many women don’t respond, even after they get past the initial shock.  We don’t know what we’re allowed to do in retaliation.  We know we’ll be frowned upon if we start yelling, but will we get in trouble if we resort to physical measures to stop an assault?  How far does an assault have to go for it to be acceptable for us to use physical force?

This is part of the reason that, when we are onlookers rather than victims, we need to take action.  We need to be willing to break the social taboo of making a scene when women are being harassed.  It isn’t easy, I know, but if we do not make the effort, we are leaving the women who are being assaulted to fight back on their own.  As a woman who knows the difficulty of being in that situation, I know that I could have used someone to help me fight back.  I would have been embarrassed…perhaps, until recently, would have rather pretended it didn’t happen than cause a public scene.  But that shame also gives abusers power, and we need to let people know that there is no shame in being assaulted.

When reading through articles and comments, I saw men who said that they groped women in order to gain back “some of their own.”  These men see sexual assault as a means to exact justice, to bring women back down to the proper level (which they did not state was below them, but that can be pretty well inferred).  I have to say, this got to me.  If a man feels that we, as women, are somehow depriving him of what is “his,” and thinks that the proper retaliation is to take it, by whatever means necessary, that is not harmless.  We should all be flipping the fuck out over this.  But we don’t, or not enough of us do, and so men continue, to think that they have the right to women and their bodies (remember when I talked about from where Nice Guy Syndrome stems?).  In order to stop this, we have to make harassment at least as socially unacceptable as women making a scene in public (isn’t it sad that this isn’t the case already?).  And, because women making a scene is so socially unacceptable, we need men who are willing to step up and say something.  This article (which I quoted at the end of my last post) puts it very well:

For men, there is a fine line between chivalry (“A damsel in distress! I must run to her aid!”) and joining her team (“I’m uncomfortable when I see another man talking to a woman that way. I wish you wouldn’t do it”).
Be careful not to cross that line.  The help is appreciated, the condescension is not.  Furthermore, after you help, move on.  Don’t try to stick around and talk to the woman.  She is probably pretty freaked out, and the last thing she needs is another strange man in her personal space.  If you are helping for the right reasons, you are not helping in order to gain recognition or a thank you.  You are not helping so that the woman will see how great you are and be taken with an overpowering urge to date you.  (If you help for either of those reasons, you are contributing to the problem.)  You are helping because it is the right thing to do.  You are helping because the men who assault women need to know their behavior is fucked up and not at all manly, because otherwise it will continue to be a socially acceptable practice.
For women, as difficult as it is to do, it can be helpful to vocalize to your attacker the fact that you do not consent to their actions.  Some harassers begin with an inappropriate touch and escalate to see how far they can go.  They are, essentially, testing to see if you will be a “good” victim.  Speaking up can help to discourage them from pushing further.  However, keeping yourself safe is of the utmost importance.  Do not do anything that you think will jeopardize your safety.  Along those lines, I do not recommend using violence when confronting your attacker.  Instead, make eye contact and speak to them — tell them to stop touching you, that what they are doing is sexual harassment, whatever you can muster at the time.  This calls attention to what they are doing if there are other people in the vicinity, and can help to let your attacker know that you are willing to speak up.
I get that actually saying something is not easy, for so many reasons.  That is why I encourage you to take a stand not only when you are being harassed, but also when you witness it happening to others.  We need all the support from one another we can get.
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